“And then, for a moment, she sees her mother as someone different, thinks by seeing Sarah in the looking glass she can see her truly as she is- a woman who might once have been young and wears a glimmer of it still. The way this fifth pregnancy is graying her. And then like light the awareness passes and she grabs hold of her hate.”
Paul Lynch disturbs the reader with the shock of 14 year old Grace’s fate during the Great Famine in 1845, Ireland when the potato harvest was mysteriously destroyed by blight. Ripped from her sleep, Grace’s mother takes her to the ‘killing stump’, seeing only her shadow, believing it is the last she’ll see of her mother, she remains alive but fistfuls of her hair are in her brother’s hands. With children to feed, everyone going hungry her mother waits for Bogs (her siblings father)- Bogs who has suddenly started to hunger for beautiful young grace. In order to survive, to find work- she must venture forth as an impostor of sorts, pretending to be her own brother Colly. Her brother decides to join her, teaching her how to be ‘a man’ and shuck her femininity. Fearful as they are out on the night of the dead “Samhain” ( A Gaelic festival that celebrates end of the harvest and the start of the coldest half of the year), they know they must find refuge before the spirits find them. It is the living, though, they should fear.
When they escape the danger of Boggs yet again, they meet something worse on the river trying to pull a sheep out of the water, one that would make a delightful, much needed meal in their bellies. Trying to navigate the land riverside, angry that the pooka are playing tricks, hiding what she needs, attempting to bargain with them to no avail she catch a break. As she tries to reach her brother and help him, the river has it’s own ideas, and in a moment she is more alone than ever. But Colly’s voice is never far, and soon he is inside of her head, guiding her as she finds work with a road crew, but there are certain things about a woman that cannot remain hidden and expose her for what she is. When she ‘bleeds’ she thinks ‘for sure now I am dying. My insides are melting.” Even wonders “What if it is some disease? What if it is the old witch’s curse?”
Even among the starving men, hungry for more than just food, there is rescue. Saved from the dangerous intentions and violence of men by the ‘good hand of John Bart’ she travels all over Ireland with him as company. She should be thankful but thinks him ‘Mr. Conceited Breeches” with “eyes that permit no watcher to see into them but see through you instead.” Always walking on foot, weary, hungry “she imagines her feet like bruised fruit”. Hunger, death, criminal elements… Lynch shows us a dangerous world through Grace. That there is still hope and spiritual musings in the midst of starvation and so much death gives this novel heart. The writing is beautiful, and the language makes you feel transported into the past. For anyone that enjoys historical fiction, you will sink into Grace’s weary shoes.
Publication Date: July 11, 2017
Little, Brown & Company